Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Day Dreams (1922), The Balloonatic & The Love Nest (both 1923)

Day Dreams (1922)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Young Man), Renée Adorée (The Girl), Edward F. Cline (The Theater Director), Joe Keaton (The Girls Father), Joe Roberts (The Mayor), George Rowe (Stagehand).

For Me, Day Dreams was the last truly great Keaton short – one that may have ranked even higher had a few of the daydream sequences weren’t missing, lost to the ages. In the film, Keaton plays a young man who wants to marry the girl of his dreams – and asks her father for permission. He tells him no, because he doesn’t think Keaton can earn a living. So Keaton tells him he’ll go off to the city and make himself a success. And if he doesn’t, he’ll come back and let the father shoot him.

He writes a series of letters to his girl telling him of his “glamorous” jobs – first that he works at a hospital caring for 200 patients – she daydreams (in a lost sequence) of Keaton as a surgeon – in reality, he works in an animal hospital, and cannot even do that properly. Next, he tells her he’s working on “Wall Street” and cleaning it up – she imagines him (again lost) as a big time banker – when in reality, he’s a street sweeper, who once again screws up. Next, he’s in a production of Hamlet (he thinks he’s the lead) – when really he’s in the background, and cannot even handle that.

One of the final sequences is one of Keaton’s (justifiably) most famous – as Keaton ends up thrown over the side of a riverboat, and ends up running in the ship’s large wheel as if he is a hamster. This sequence is ingenious in its setup and execution, and shows Keaton at his most daring and brilliant. It also acts a metaphor for the rest of the short – the more Keaton tries to go somewhere, the more he stays still – constantly in motion, never getting anywhere. To a certain extent, all of the jobs Keaton has in the film are like this – the more he tries to one thing, the more of the opposite he actually achieves.

Day Dreams is also rather dark at times – this is in fact a movie where Keaton agrees to be killed if he fails to honor his intended father-in-law – and it even ends with Keaton trying to commit suicide – and failing (the poor sap can’t even do that right). But it ends on at least a slightly lighter note – no murder, just being tossed out a window. Overall, this is one of Keaton’s best.

The Balloonatic (1923)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Young Man), Phyllis Haver (The Young Woman), Babe London (Fat Girl at The House of Trouble).

I wish I could say The Baloonatic was a better short than it actually is. For one, that title is amazing – and fun to say. For another, this is perhaps the only one of Keaton’s shorts that tries to give his female co-star more to do – to allow her to get some laughs as well, and not just be a foil for Keaton. Unfortunately what this really does is slow the film down – it’s already one of the longer Keaton shorts at 27 minutes – but it doesn’t really have any plot, and the comic momentum slows at times, so it never quite works as well as it should.

The movie seems to be two unconnected ideas that Keaton brings together that doesn’t really work. At first, Keaton is at a carnival – standing outside something called the “House of Trouble” – which ejects its victim via a slide. Keaton hangs around too long out front, and gets smashed into by a rather large woman (which is still funny, even if politically incorrect). He also sits next to an attractive girl on a log ride – that goes into a darkened tunnel. When he emerges, Keaton has a black eye – his seduction didn’t go so well.

Keaton (somehow) finds himself on top of a hot air balloon that takes off – and he has to find a way not to die. When it crash lands in the middle of nowhere, he makes no attempt to get back to civilization – and instead tries to survive in the wild, and one up the young woman (Phyllis Haver) he meets out there – who is as inept in the outdoors as he is. It’s here that the movie grinds to a half. There are some good moments to be sure – Keaton getting water out of his boots by standing on his head, everything involving his canoe – but mostly the gags are tired and become repetitive, and strange, fantastical ending doesn’t work. Haver may be a good film comedienne – but when paired with Keaton, she cannot help but not come off very well. In short, this is one of Keaton’s weakest shorts.

The Love Nest (1923)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Buster Keaton), Joe Roberts (Captain of the Whaler), Virginia Fox (The Girl).

There is a lot to like about Keaton’s final short silent film. When his girlfriend breaks off their engagement he writes her a note that says, in part “Since you’ve decided to break off our engagement, I’ve decided not the marry you” – and ends with the request that she contact him immediately if she does not receive this letter. Heartbroken, he heads out onto the open seas on his small boat. Stranded in the middle of the ocean, he thinks he’s doomed – until he comes across the whaling vessel – The Love Nest, captained by Joe Roberts, who will throw any crew member overboard for minor infractions (he’s not a complete monster – he throws a flowered wreath after them). The short is basically Keaton trying hard not to piss off Roberts – which of course, he is incapable of doing.

Keaton made several films on board boats – most notably another short (covered earlier, appropriately called The Boat) and his 1924 classic feature – The Navigator. You can see some of the gags here that Keaton would refine for that feature – he makes good use of the boat, and the water. The film has several inspired gags – although nothing that reaches the levels of Keaton’s very best.

In short, The Love Nest is another one of the Keaton shorts that works well from beginning to (almost) the end. I still do not like the clichéd ending he uses here – it’s the same one he used in Convict 13 and The Frozen North, and it bugs me – particularly because this film seemed like perhaps Keaton was going to be willing to fully embrace his darker side, and then chickened out at the end. It’s still a fine film, but it’s just not one of his best.

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